4 Foundations of Humanitarian Accountability in a Digital Era

by | Nov 8, 2022 | ICT4D |

4 foundations

It is easy to think about being accountable to those we work with by giving them a means to feedback. Many of us also add ‘by doing what we say we are going to do.’ While integrity and providing a means of two way communication is good and foundational, it is quite basic. There is more we can, and should, be doing. Especially in a digital era.

Conceptually one of the key questions aid agencies need to wrestle with is ‘how does applying the human rights and ethics lens to digital solutions change our approach?’ This is not an easy question and neither is there only one correct answer. It is complex, but we need to wrestle with it as ignoring it has negative consequences.

More practically, there is the question of ‘what is a people centred approach to data management?’ People centred, not organisational centred like we currently have. Again, this is complex without only one answer. However, when we consider it through the lens of accountability, I see four key foundations.

First, just like this post started, we need to ensure there is genuine two-way communication and we do what we say we are going to do. However, here we focus on ‘doing what we say we will’ when it comes to data. So if we say we won’t share it, we don’t.

Second, to improve our integrity and the usability of the data we collect (or verify), we need to provide access to the data we hold about the person to the person. Not only is this a legal requirement in more and more countries, it helps with agency. Access enables the person to ensure the data is correct, to check what we are doing with it, and if done well, can enable the person to use that data in other areas of their lives.

Third, we hugely increase our work on creating awareness. Awareness of why we need the data we collect, what we do with it, with whom we will share it, and so on. However, additionally, and perhaps most importantly, create awareness about what their rights are when it comes to data, what the value of their data is to us and others, and so on.

Fourth, closely tied to awareness is alternatives. A people centred approach to data management fundamentally must have choice. And choice, not made by the organisation, but choice for the person or household. This does not mean there must be infinite choices. But a person affected by a crisis should be able to choose not to be registered digitally or not to provide certain pieces of data or their biometric or whatever and still receive assistance. This is not saying we, as humanitarian organisations, do not need information. We do. It does not mean, we do not have preferred means of gathering that information. We do. However, a people centred approach to data management acknowledges it is not only about us. It is about the person affected by the crisis. We must provide an option, an alternative.

Four things. In some ways four simple things. And yet, as most designers (and writers) would say, simplicity is the hardest to make and communicate.

If you are working on these (or other aspects) please get in touch as I’d love to exchange practical ideas of how we make it a reality.

Photo by Jordan Graff


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